Philadelphia’s First Messiah Concert: The Doors Closed Promptly at 11:00 AM

Dec 16, 2017

Philadelphia’s role in the formation of our government is characteristic of a time when the city and its leading residents were forging firsts of all kinds.  As Handel’s Messiah is performed this holiday season, you might wonder when and where those first citizens might have heard the great Baroque work.

Tune to WRTI 90.1 for Handel's Messiah on Friday, December 22nd at 2 pm.  We're broadcasting the famous 1958 recording with The Philadelphia Orchestra and the Morman Tabernacle Choir led by Eugene Ormandy.  On Sunday, December 24th at 9 pm we'll also broadcast Handel's Messiah from Trinity Church, New York on WRTI's All-Classical Web Stream, and on HD-2.

Linda Wood is assistant head librarian in the music department at the Free Library of Philadelphia.  Several years ago she compiled reference materials relating to the first local performance and other early performances of Handel’s Messiah.

If you’re interested in learning more, check out these online sources.  The links are below. They contain descriptions of the concert on May 4, 1786 when the "Hallelujah" chorus was the last performance in a program that began with an overture, included five hymns, a flute concerto by a "Mr. Brown" and a violin concerto by a "Mr. Juhan." 

Accompanied by an orchestra of 50, the chorus in that early Philadelphia performance was made up of 230 voices – enormous for that time – and rivaling the chorus of 275 at a Handel festival in London’s Westminster Abbey two years earlier. 

Early Concert-Life in America (1731-1800), by O.G. Sonneck. Jump to  pages 108-111 for information about the May 4, 1786 grand concert.

Annals of Music in Philadelphia and History of The Musical Fund Society, by Louis C. Mediera.  Go to pages 36-37 for a description of the May 4, 1786 concert.  

Both of these books are in the public domain and can be read online.

WRTI will air a three-hour broadcast of Handel's Messiah, from Trinity Church, New York, this Sunday, December 24th at  9pm. Hear it on WRTI's All-Classical Web Stream, and on HD2.